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Public Health Statement for Mercury

Excerpts, March 1999

The paragraphs below comprise the discussion of dental amalgam in Toxicological Profile for Mercury, published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR's mission is "to serve the public by using the best science, taking responsive public health actions, and providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances." Its current position is that dental amalgam poses no known risk but additional research should explore whether any subtle risks have been overlooked. We believe that no such problems will be found.

A potential source of exposure to metallic mercury for the general population is mercury released from dental amalgam fillings. An amalgam is a mixture of metals. The amalgam used in silver-colored dental fillings contains approximately 50% metallic mercury, 35% silver, 9% tin, 6% copper, and trace amounts of zinc. When the amalgam is first mixed, it is a soft paste which is inserted into the tooth surface. It hardens within 30 minutes. Once the amalgam is hard, the mercury is bound within the amalgam, but very small amounts are slowly released from the surface of the filling due to corrosion or chewing or grinding motions. Part of the mercury at the surface of the filling may enter the air as mercury vapor or be dissolved in the saliva. The total amount of mercury released from dental amalgam depends upon the total number of fillings and surface areas of each filling, the chewing and eating habits of the person, and other chemical conditions in the mouth. Estimates of the amount of mercury released from dental amalgams range from 3 to 17 micrograms per day (µg/day). The mercury from dental amalgam may contribute from 0 to more than 75% of your total daily mercury exposure, depending on the number of amalgam fillings you have, the amount of fish consumed, the levels of mercury (mostly as methylmercury) in those fish, and exposure from other less common sources such as mercury spills, religious practices, or herbal remedies that contain mercury. However, it should be kept in mind that exposure to very small amounts of mercury, such as that from dental amalgam fillings, does not necessarily pose a health risk.

Whether the levels of exposure to mercury vapor from dental amalgam are sufficiently high to cause adverse health effects, and exactly what those effects are, continues to be researched and debated by scientists and health officials. U.S. government summaries on the effects of dental amalgam conclude that there is no apparent health hazard to the general population, but that further study is needed to determine the possibility of more subtle behavioral or immune system effects, and to determine the levels of exposure that may lead to adverse effects in sensitive populations. Sensitive populations may include pregnant women, children under the age of 6 (especially up to the age of 3), people with impaired kidney function, and people with hypersensitive immune responses to metals. If you belong to this group, you should discuss your medical condition with your dentist prior to any dental restoration work. Removal of dental amalgams in people who have no indication of adverse effects is not recommended and can put the person at greater risk, if performed improperly. Chelation therapy (used to remove metals from the body tissues) itself presents some health risks, and should be considered only when a licensed occupational or environmental health physician determines it necessary to reduce immediate and significant health risks due to high levels of mercury in the body.

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This page was posted on September 3, 2002.